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NAYPYIDAW —Three journalists, two of them foreign, and their driver remain imprisoned in Naypyidaw after their second hearing on Thursday in a case that some are billing as the latest test for press freedom in Burma.
The Turkish news agency TRT World’s Lau Hon Meng, a Singaporean, and Malaysian Mok Choy Lin were detained alongside Burmese nationals Aung Naing Soe and driver Hla Tin on 27 October after attempting to shoot drone footage of Burma’s parliamentary complex in the capital Naypyidaw.
Police initially charged the four under the country’s Export and Import Law. The Burmese nationals have denied any involvement in bringing the drone into the country, but the court has already found the foursome guilty under the 1934 Burma Aircraft Act, at an initial hearing on 10 November.
Defence counsel Khin Maung Zaw told DVB he had been denied access to his clients from the time of their arrest until the first hearing, a violation of the defendants’ constitutional rights.
Humans Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson said, if true, the denial is a strike against the credentials of the National League for Democracy-led government.
“The fact that even a basic fair trial procedure like permitting a lawyer to see his client is in doubt should raise red flags about the intentions of this government to promote rights respecting reforms,” Robertson told DVB via email on Wednesday.
The prosecution had called three witnesses to the Zabuthiri Township Court on Thursday — an eyewitness and two police officers. None presented to the court.
Khin Maung Zaw argued that last week’s conviction under the Burma Aircraft Act included provisions against the import of aerial devices. The defence will submit a letter requesting that the still-pending import charge be thrown out, citing double jeopardy-esque jurisprudence that, Khin Maung Zaw argues, prevents defendants from facing a similar charge twice. The prosecution indicated that it will also submit a letter to the court, but declined to give additional details.
TRT World released a statement on 31 October saying their foreign reporters had obtained valid journalist visas. Burmese state-broadcaster MRTV, however, reported that the Turkish outlet did not have permission to operate a drone.
At last week’s hearing, police claimed the foreign journalists did not declare the drone to customs officers at Yangon International Airport. Customs authorities say they have been unable to locate a declaration form from either of the two foreign defendants in which the drone was listed.
The hearing on Thursday was the second in the case. In a surprise to the defence team, the court on 10 November found the group guilty under section 10 of the 1934 Burma Aircraft Act, handing down two-month sentences to each. Shawn Crispin, the Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, slammed the ruling as an overreach, saying that “the fact that three journalists and their driver are now languishing behind bars on 1932 Burma Aircraft Act [charges] — which includes no provisions on drones — is frankly a travesty.”
Khin Maung Zaw told Reuters after that verdict, “The detainees admitted that they committed the crime hoping they would only be fined, so it shocked us when the judge sentenced them to two months.”
Burma’s Export and Import Law does not specifically deal with drones, instead banning the import, export or operation of “restricted, prohibited and banned goods.”
Local journalist Aung Naing Soe has worked with a number of national and international news agencies. He was working as an interpreter for the TRT World reporters when the four defendants were detained. His defence team claims he neither operated the drone nor had knowledge of its import.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for 20 November.